Advent 2022 – Gabriel’s Announcement

“The Annunciation” by Leonardo da Vinci

Day 1: Read Luke 1:26-38

She stood in the dim light of the early morning with her hand over her belly and her heart full of awe and wonder at the life growing within her.  It was all so surreal.  She tried to remember every detail but it was so wonderful and frightening at the same time.  She had heard a rustling beside her and turned to see a man – but not a man – an angel?  Yes, it was an angel; he said his name was Gabriel and he called her “highly favored,” but surely he meant someone else.  She was a peasant girl from the nothing town of Nazareth.  Her highest goal was to marry Joseph and have a family.  She pulled her cloak tighter around her and noticed that she was trembling  – fear mixed with excitement ran like shockwaves through her small frame. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” (Luke 1:30).  Mary pointed out that she was a virgin, wondering – not if – but how this would happen.  He spoke of the Holy Spirit, an overshadowing, and the impossible becoming a reality.  Then the angel said the most remarkable thing – that this child would “be called the Son of God” (v. 35).  Oh my!  Did he mean that she – Mary of Nazareth – would be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah? It was every Jewish girl’s dream. 

In the stillness of the morning, the angel’s announcement still rang in her ears.  She repeated aloud the words she said to him that day as if reassuring herself and reaffirming her willingness, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said” (v. 38).

Mary’s quiet, well-planned life was suddenly interrupted by God.  She was put in a most scandalous situation, one that could have cost her her beloved Joseph, and possibly even her life. It was an inconvenience, to say the least. Yet she humbly surrendered herself to the will of God and embraced an unknown future with awe and wonder and faith. Beloved, has God interrupted your life with something unexpected – something inconvenient, perhaps even shocking?   It may be a person, a diagnosis, a major change, or a great sorrow.  How will you respond? With fear and anxiety? Or with faith and humble surrender?  Are you willing to be the Lord’s servant?

Look How Much You’ve Grown!

Joy has grown so much this last year. It’s obvious when you look at her. She’s taller and stronger. Her legs and arms are longer. Even her hair is longer. Her vocabulary is incredible, she doesn’t use baby talk and she annunciates her words very well. She can do more things for herself like spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. And she’s learning how to calm herself when she gets upset. (I hope she will teach me.) Potty training is still a work in progress, but I know she will get that too. One thing hasn’t changed – that mega-watt smile can still melt Nana’s heart. She’s a growing, beautiful, amazing little girl.

Which makes me wonder, how do we know that we’re growing spiritually? We don’t get taller, but we should see signs that mark spiritual maturity. Like Joy, our speech is a clear indication of growth. Jesus said it’s in our words. “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt 12:35). We talk about God and the things of God. We reject profanity and gossip and complaining (Eph 4:29; Phil 2:14).

It’s also seen in what we desire. Growing in God means we want the things that He wants and we are repulsed by the things that offend Him (Ps 40:8; Col 3:5). We look and act more like Jesus, which is God’s goal all along – “to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Rom 8:29). We are compassionate (2 Cor 1:3-4), kind and gentle (2 Tim 2:24-25), loving (1 Cor 13), self-controlled (1 Pet 1:13), and “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (Jas 1:19).

Perhaps the most visible sign of spiritual maturity is how we deal with sin in our lives. As spiritual babes, we sin and the Spirit convicts us of our sin. We confess, repent, and receive forgiveness. But we go back to it again. And we repeat the cycle, sometimes multiple times. The true evidence of spiritual growth is when we stop going back to our sin. When the Spirit helps us recognize the pattern and break the cycle, we’ve made a major step in spiritual maturity.

I look at myself and see some signs of growth as well as places where I’m still a toddler in Christ. You too? Growth comes when we take in the things that nurture our spirit, like God’s Word, fellowship with other believers, prayer, and resting in the Lord. And trust. Paul said, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil 1:6). God’s not going to give up on you, Beloved. Don’t give up on yourself.

Stop Looking Back

I have a lot in common with Moses, the hero of God’s people. No, I’ve never parted a sea or made water come from a rock. I’ve never led a nation out of slavery nor floated down the river in a basket as a baby. What I have done that Moses also did was argue with God.

After Moses fled Egypt as a wanted man, he settled down and started working for his father-in-law as a shepherd. Then he saw a burning bush and heard God say, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (Ex 3:10). And he argues with God. Moses starts giving all the reasons why he can’t do what God has called him to do. “They won’t listen to me. They won’t believe me. I’m not an eloquent speaker. I stutter.” Finally, Moses says, “O, Lord, please send someone else to do it!” (Ex 4:1-13).

My version of Moses is: “I’m not good enough. “I’m not smart enough. And then the sure kicker: “I have an ugly, sinful past, God, I’ve done so many shameful things.” Then I pull out my carefully cataloged and categorized list of all my failures so that He can see why I am the absolute wrong person for the job. I was recently struck by what Bob Goff, lawyer, speaker, and New York Times best-selling author said, “We spend a lot of time memorizing failures that God spent a lot of love saying we could forget.”

He’s right. John said that the Father lavishes great love on us and calls us His children (1 John 3:1). Even before we called Him our Father. Paul said, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). God loved you while you were doing the very things that sent His Son to the cross. When you accepted Christ, all your sins went under the blood of Jesus and left nothing but the Father’s love.

You are no longer a sinner in the eyes of God. You have been cleansed and reborn and filled with His Spirit so that you are enabled and empowered to do that thing for which He created you. Oh, Beloved, don’t look back when God calls you to move forward. He knows who you were – and who you are now. You are His child.

More Than Words

The more tired she is the more Joy fights sleep. I suppose she doesn’t want to miss a thing around her. When she was just a baby I would snuggle her close in the rocking chair and give her her bottle. She would drink just a little, pull away, then immediately complain because she didn’t have her bottle. I’d plug it back in and say, “You’re the one who turned away from it sweetie.” We would repeat this cycle several times until she finally gave up and drifted off.

This little ritual reminds me of people who complain, “I don’t feel God anymore. I don’t think God cares about me. Why does God not love me?” The first thing I ask them is, “What is God saying to you in His Word?” And they answer, “Oh, I haven’t read the Bible in a while – I know I should, I just haven’t felt like it.” DING-DING-DING! They just answered their own question. They don’t “feel” God or think he cares about nor loves them because they have turned away from the very place they find Him.

God gave the Israelites His commandments and His Law so that they would obey Him. But it was about more than just compliance, it was about knowing Him. The closer they lived to the commands of God, the more He revealed Himself to them. They came to know God by knowing and obeying His Words. Moses declared to them, “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” (Deut 30:14).

The Word of God has never been more readily available than it is today. The Scriptures are literally at our fingertips, in printed form, electronic media, by audio and video – and in almost every language on earth. You can have it any way you want it. But you have to want it. You have to pick up the book or open the app or pull up the podcast. You have to make God’s Word a priority in your life. The less you read, the less you want to read.  And the converse is true: the more you read, the more you want to read.

The Bible is not just a bunch of stories and rules and words on paper. It is the true and living Word of God (Heb 4:12), inspired and empowered by the Spirit of God (2 Pet 1:20-21) and embodied in Jesus Christ, the Son of God (John 1:14). Have you turned away from the very thing your spirit is craving? Come back to the Bible, Beloved. “These are not just idle words for you, they are your life” (Deut 32:47).

How to (not)Resist Temptation

I love fall. I love the colors of the leaves (even though they don’t change here in the deep south). I love the cool, crisp bite of the morning air. I love back-to-school season. I love the ground carpeted with shed leaves. I love college football. I love to watch the harvesters at work in the fields, bringing their bounty to bless the world. Except for peanuts. Oh, I love to eat peanuts. But the nut is produced under the soil and the farmer has to turn the plants over to harvest the crop, which releases all kinds of things into the air – like mold – to which I am highly allergic. And I live in the peanut capital of the world. Achoo! And yet I keep the window in my study open to enjoy the aforementioned cool, crisp air. I know. That’s pretty stupid. Just like standing in the path of temptation.

The mainstay of Christian conviction has always been  “Resist temptation!”  But the Bible says we are to run from temptation.  We are told to “flee from sexual immorality” and “idolatry” (1 Corinthians 6:18; 10:14); “flee from greed [the love of money]” (1 Timothy 6:10,11); and “flee from evil desires” (2 Timothy 2:22).  Why flee? James said we are all “tempted when, by [our] own evil desire, [we] are dragged away and enticed” (1:14). Our evil desires are internal. We have to flee from temptation because it is tapping into those desires. That’s why you can’t stand in front of temptation and try to talk yourself out of it – you have to get away from it. If your flesh is agreeing with the thing in front of you, run. You are standing on dangerous ground.

I knew a man who drove six miles out of his way on his daily route just to avoid driving past a bar he used to frequent in his drinking days. He knew the desire was always in him so he detoured away from the temptation. He took Paul’s word to heart: “when you are tempted, [God] will provide a way out” (1 Corinthians 10:13). The way out for him was an alternative – if longer – route. A married woman quit her lucrative job to distance herself from a coworker to whom she was attracted. Another man gave up his smartphone with internet capabilities for a simple call-and-text-only phone to avoid the pull of pornography.

Jesus wants you and me to be victorious over temptation. He gave us His Holy Spirit to empower us to do just that. But we still have to put distance between ourselves and temptation. If I want to stop sneezing I’ve got to close the window. Beloved, If you want to stop falling into sin take the way out. Take the long way home. Change your job. Cancel the subscription. Change your phone. Cry out to Jesus for help. Then run.

Jesus in Your Shoes

All across this nation, the anti-Christian machine is working to shut out every mention of God and deny the rights of Christians to express our beliefs. Nativity scenes are banned from the public square, or equal space must be given to anti-Christian displays. The Ten Commandments are being removed from government facilities, and students in school are forbidden to give reference to their faith. Lawmakers are pushing to ban all teaching of “religious doctrine.” God is unwelcome and unwanted in this country.

But don’t miss what John said, “The One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Brothers and sisters, don’t forget that the Spirit of Christ dwells in you. Everywhere you go you take Jesus with you. So as believers, we take Jesus into the marketplace and the government sector. Students take Jesus into their school. Employees bring Jesus to work.

The Lord declared that His followers are ”the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt 5:13, 14). Salt is our witness in the world. Light’s purpose is to shine in the darkness (John 1:5a). Salt is essential for life in general. It is one of the oldest and most universal food seasonings and methods of food preservation. Saltiness is one of the basic human tastes and it makes us thirsty. Here in the deep south, boiled peanuts are a favorite snack, but you’d better have a drink nearby because properly prepared boiled peanuts are very salty.  A salty Christian seasons the world with love, Joy, kindness, grace, compassion, and the good news of the gospel. They preserve the character of Christ in a tasteless culture and a properly prepared Christ-follower makes others thirsty for the Living Water.

From creation, light’s purpose is to shine in the darkness (John 1:5a). Light has power over darkness (John 1:5b) because darkness is nothing more than the absence of light. When light is introduced into the darkness, darkness no longer exists. That means you and I have power over darkness – not our own power, but Christ’s. The world is a very dark place. Evil is everywhere. But you and I have the His light to overcome evil and darkness. When we shine with His light, the darkness has no choice but to flee. And when we shine with His light every eye will be drawn – not to us – but to the Source of the Light.  

Sure, they can ban public displays of Christianity, but by your presence as a Christian, Beloved, Jesus still walks through this nation – in your shoes.

Sit Up Straight!

I am wearing a Holter monitor for the next thirty days. It is a mobile telemetry system that works like a continuous EKG. The monitor is stuck to my chest over my heart by a patch with leads that sends signals to a cellphone that records what the monitor detects. When I bend over or sit less than straight, the phone emits a piercing sound that tells me the monitor is out of position. All. The. Time. It just went off again. It’s driving me crazy.

But it’s also doing something else. It’s making me very aware of my posture. If I want to keep this thing quiet – and Lord knows I do – I have to sit very straight. That’s not natural to me. I tend to slump when I’m sitting, especially when I’m studying or working on my laptop, as I am now. I remember my mother constantly telling me to sit up straight as a kid. It clearly didn’t stick with me. Slumping is my norm – and it’s got to change or I will be a basket case when my thirty days are up.

What possible spiritual application can I get from a heart monitor? Simply this – some of us are going through our lives with a spiritual slump, and that’s got to change. One of Paul’s mantras was “once you were” – “but now you are” (Col 1:21-22). He contrasted life before and after Christ. But he said some of us are still behaving by our old nature. Once we were sexually immoral, evil, full of rage and malice, slanderous, idolaters, drunkards, practicing witchcraft. Those are pretty extreme aren’t they, but what about being impure and lustful, greedy, angry, using filthy language, lying, jealous, selfish, and causing disagreements (Col 3:5-9; Gal 5:19-21 adapted)? Did you squirm at a few of those like I did? Some of us are still slumping because it’s an old habit.

“But now,” he said, we “live a life worthy of the Lord, pleasing Him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power” (Col 1:22). Because of Jesus and His Spirit in us, now we are full of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). We don’t have to be who we were. We can be who we are now.

This monitor has gone off three more times as I’ve been writing this. I keep forgetting to keep my back straight. By the end of this though, I bet it will be my new normal. I wonder if the Spirit had a monitor on me how many times it would go off in a day. Beloved, let’s become very aware of our spiritual posture and start living like who we are now. “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light” (Eph 5:8).

Fill My Cup, Lord

“He satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things” (Psalm 107:9)

I used to spend my days wandering around with my empty cup of needs, imploring everyone I met to pour a little something in. No, I didn’t have an actual tin cup and I didn’t beg for alms. What I needed money could not fix. “Might you have some peace you could give me? “Can you spare a little hope?” “I could really use some Joy.” “You sure seem happy – could you share some of that with me?  And the gaping hole in my soul kept me constantly asking, “Please, do you have some love for me?” I cringe now when I realize how needy and desperate – and probably annoying – I was.

I’d like to claim that those were “pre-Jesus days” when I didn’t know Christ, but it wasn’t. I was in church every Sunday, sang in the choir, attended every women’s ministry event, and wore a cross on a chain every day. But I still felt like I had to run to people and beg for what I needed. If a kind soul put something in, I came back to them again and again and again. One, because I had found a source, and two because whatever they put in didn’t last very long. And that was by design. It wasn’t supposed to last because their offerings were human. I needed something more. One day I heard a song and the lightbulb went off.

Fill my cup Lord, I lift it up, Lord!

Come and quench this thirsting of my soul;

Bread of heaven, Feed me till I want no more–

Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole!

Richard Blanchard – “Fill My Cup, Lord”

I realized that only He could fill my empty cup – and keep it full. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6). How? By His Spirit. Acts 13:52 says, “the disciples were filled with Joy and with the Holy Spirit.”  He alone can fill the holes in my heart and soul because He is what I need. He is my source of peace and hope and Joy and love. 

I pray you have found Him to be yours too. And I pray that His Spirit fills you and spills out on those around you. “May the God of all hope fill you, Beloved, with all Joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:13).

Hebrews: Your Cheering Section

When I finally pulled the trigger on college I was blessed with a great support system. My husband was my #1 cheerleader and was so patient with the time I spent on my studies. My best friend covered me in prayer all the way through. But there was one particular friend who was the most helpful because she had just completed the same course of study at the same school. She was a Godsend, full of experience and wise counsel. I called her with a thousand questions and more than a few panic attacks. She knew what I was dealing with and how I could get through it. She shared her wisdom and kept me going when I wanted to quit. I am so grateful to you, Merideth Middleton.

That is the same spirit behind Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” For several weeks we have studied the “greats of the faith” – Enoch, Noah, Moses, Abraham, and even Rahab – a prostitute.  They are all part of the “great cloud of witnesses” who serve as encouragement and inspiration for us today.  Add to that list Peter, James, John, and Paul, plus the martyrs who stood in the face of torture and death and praised the Name above every name. It is indeed a “great cloud” of faithfulness.  They are models and examples to us and they are cheering you and me on in our Christian journey.  They paid the price for being a Christ-follower and they want us to know that it is worth it.

There is another in that great cloud who is particularly watching and encouraging us.  Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  The Scriptures tell us that Jesus is praying for us; He is asking His Father to give us faith that will not fail (Luke 22:31, Romans 8:34).  He is speaking to our hearts through His Spirit.  And when the battle is the hardest and we think we have been forgotten, He who sits at the right hand of the Father stands to bless and encourage us (Acts 7:55, 56).  You have all the saints of the ages cheering you on.  You have brothers and sisters in Christ to support and encourage you.  And you have the very Son of God praying for you. Keep running, Beloved, victory is ahead.

Faithful

Do you remember when grown-ups would ask you as a kid, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It often changed for me from year to year. I wanted to be a dancer, a teacher, a garbage collector (what?), a singer, a mommy, and a writer. I often look at Joy and wonder what the future holds for her. We have already determined that she will be a preacher (I know, she’s a girl and we’re Baptists), a dancer, a singer, a chef, and the President of the United States. And she’ll be awesome (and cute) at all of them.

I didn’t follow all those dreams and went in some very different directions at times. I’ve had stints working in retail and the medical field and enjoyed a year as a floral clerk. I hung onto writing and teaching as my calling and I’m exploring the idea of counseling. but I’ve worked in religious administration for most of my career. It’s been sweet and a perfect fit for my skills.

But I’ve discovered something else I want to be. Faithful. Just faithful. Not only in a career or ministry but faithful in my life. I want to love God with all my heart and mind and soul and strength (Mark 12:30). I want to find hope and Joy and peace in Christ (Rom 15:13) and walk in step with the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:16-18). I want an undivided, unrelenting, unquenchable zeal for my Creator (Rom 12:11). I want to pursue Him with reckless abandon (Phil 3:12-14). Then I want to rest in Him (Mark 6:31). I want Christ to be my life (Col 3:4). I want my life to be all about Christ (Col 1:10-12).

One day I will stand before the Lord. I don’t want Him to compliment me on the pretty bouquets I created or the nice bulletins I produced or how well I managed the faculty files and textbooks at the college.  I don’t Him to tell me how much He enjoyed my writing and that I was a solid teacher of His Word. As much as I love her, I don’t even want Him to tell me I was a good grandmother to Joy. I only want to hear one thing: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt 25:21). That will be enough. That will be everything.